Mercedes Racing Boss Toto Wolff and the Future of F1

On the eve of the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Mercedes AMG Petronas boss Toto Wolff talks F1’s unsteady future, a new American team, and the tension between his top drivers.

There is a near-mutiny is one of the largest sports in the world. Just as the Formula 1 circus prepares to green-flag its third United State Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, two of the bottom-tier teams—Caterham and Marussia—have “gone into administration,” which is a corporate-speak for shuttered their factories and called in the lawyers. The starting grid, which usually has 24 cars, is now reduced to 18, and even hours before the start of the race three other teams are threatening (or have been rumored to have threatened) to boycott the race.

The reason, of course, is money—specifically how the very large mountain of proceeds are being distributed among the teams. The system now, administered by the overlord of all motorsports, Bernie Ecclestone, is a combination of equally-divided spoils (each team of the top 10 scoring teams receives a check for around $34 million) and a progressively large share to the best-performers—Red Bull Infiniti, Mercedes AMG Petronas, in particular. As it stands, the cash given to the “back markers” isn’t now clearly not sufficient to float a team for the entire season.

The question is particularly important today, mostly because the US market has always been the unsolvable puzzle for Bernie and his minions. Can F1 actually make an impact in the US? Ask Gene Haas, who owns a very successful NASCAR team with Tony Stewart and who will be launching a new F1 team in 2016. It seems like a financial suicide mission. But according to Mercedes AMG Petronas head Toto Wolff, somehow it all makes sense. For him, it should make sense: His team already won the Constructor’s Championship. We asked him to look into the crystal ball and see if the sport has any future.

MAXIM: Two teams have dropped out of the F1 before the season’s end, and others are openly threatening mutiny. It seems like a stressful time to be in the business of Formula 1.

Toto Wolff: No, this is a very good time. You hear a lot about the controversial side of Formula 1, but there are many good things, too. It’s a fantastic round for business opportunities, we are speaking to lots of potential sponsors. The American business community has discovered Formula 1, it would seem. We’re having lots of interesting discussions.

Ok, well you might be making new friends here, but don’t they ask you about Caterham and Marussia?

No. But I will say it’s unfortunate what has apparently happened with those teams because there are many people working there, at the factories and they have apparently lost their jobs. But this is Formula 1, and this happens. In the past 50 years we have more that 130 teams F1! They come and go. I think there is a core group that is really important, and that group has been there forever. That’s important to remember.

So does Gene Haas stand a chance? Can there be successful new teams in this sport?

Yes. But they need to understand what they’re doing. Haas is in NASCAR and he has faced all the challenges you have when you set up a structure in a very competitive race series. NASCAR is obviously different, but he knows what he’s doing. That’s maybe different than what Caterham and Marussia have expected when they first got into the sport.

Any idea what Haas’s big first challenges are? How does he even begin to get drivers?

You know with all the decisions you need to make in F1, it’s like a midsized company. Obviously the driver decision is very visible, but it’s tiny bit of what we . There are many, many good drivers. In order to get world clas drivers you have establish yourself a little. There are plenty to choose from, whether they are Americans or Europeans. That is not going to be is problem. 

Honda has a good chance? Are there really any expectations?

I think we need to make sure that there is a strong showing. We are competitors, of course, but it equally important for Formula 1. When you join the club, when you join Formula 1, is it a realistic expectation to blow everybody away in the first year? They hope that, and obviously we don’t hope that. But it’s a long-term project. 

Is there still a tension between your drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg?

There is no tension! It is happyland [Laughs]. No seriously, It is normal, these boys have been calibrated since very early in their lives to win championships. The Formula 1 championship is the only thing they have ever worked for. You find yourself in a car and your biggest enemy is your teammate. That triggers lots of consequences. It is about politics, it is about mind games, it is about getting the best rides out of the car. It is business as usual.

Lewis is now his own manager. Does that make it easier to deal with him?

Listen, he’s a very straightforward guy. We’re trying to be as transparent as possible. if you’re not transparent and you have your little hidden agendas, that is where it all goes wrong.

Photos by Mike Guy